Stratford on Avon

Liberal Democrats require a 4% swing to win Stratford upon Avon constituency at the next General Election.

More answers than questions

Three months after the close of the consultation on the Fire Service, I have still received no answers to my questions and objections. But six hours after submitting my response to the consultation on a potential Stratford Parkway railway station, I was sent a complete and comprehensive set of answers specifically tailored to my questions (see the previous article), as well as a copy of the outline business case.

This is refreshing, and transparent, and laudably quick.

I do now feel that the outstanding issues have been answered, and I have written back to them to tell them so. Evidently a great deal of thought and research went into the proposals, and many of the fears which have been put to me by local people — especially the fear that Stratford-upon-Avon railway station would eventually close — have now been put to rest.

A certain part of me still feels that these questions could have been answered openly to begin with — but, given the speed with which they responded, I really can’t fault them.

Of course, there is still a great deal of work to be done, and many negotiations must be concluded. Things might still go wrong. But the way in which the planners responded gives me a great deal of confidence that they will see to it that things do not go wrong.

Once again — this is refreshing, and should not be forgotten.

More questions than answers

As the great-grandson of a railwayman, and the grandson of a railway missionary, I love trains, railways, railway stations and rail travel. My natural inclination is to back them. So I’m in a slightly funny position with the consultation on Stratford’s prospective Parkway Station. The public consultation is very short — 4 March to 19 March — and the consultation presentation leaves many more questions than it answers. The consultation documents are in the form of posters, and the consultation website gives virtually no more information.

The questions I would expect to be answered in a consultation of this kind are as follows:

  • What routes are being served, and what are the train operator plans for the future of these routes, if the station is built?
  • What is the capacity of the route to take on more passengers?
  • What evidence is there that opening a new station will increase passenger numbers?
  • If the new station will not increase passenger numbers, what is the predicted impact on existing stations?
  • In the case of Stratford-upon-Avon, I have some other, very specific questions. Stratford is (or was, last time I checked) Britain’s third most popular tourist destination. It will play a leading role in the Cultural Olympiad as part of the 2012 Olympics. It is home to the world’s most famous theatre, and the world’s most famous theatre company, and also to the Shakespeare birthplace trust. Parkway stations, such as Warwick Parkway, are typically constructed on out-of-town sites to give easy parking for local people to commute to perhaps London or Birmingham. They provide ample parking, hence the name Parkway and relatively easy access from motorways. It’s true there are people who have to go from Stratford to Birmingham or London, though my local station of Honeybourne is a deal more convenient, faster and more cost effective for trips to London, and Warwick Parkway is available on the other side of Stratford. But most of the potential growth in rail use for Stratford is inward, not outward: tourism is destined to play an even larger part in the town’s future, with the reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre next year.

    Therefore, I would want to know:

  • What testing has been done of likely tourist uptake of the new station?
  • Given that tourists can walk from the existing station into the town, what is the likely response to having to walk to a bus, and then take the bus into town, only to have to take it out later in order to return?
  • What negotiations have taken place with train operators to ensure good links with fast services? Even from Warwick, it is quicker to drive to Coventry to take a train to London than to take the Chiltern line from Warwick Parkway
  • I am not saying that these questions are unanswerable. But, despite laudable sections on environmental and flooding impact, the consultation posters significantly fail to answer the basic rail-industry questions, and, equally, the more specific Stratford-facing questions.

    I would very much like to be able to support the creation of a new station. However, on the evidence presented to me, I don’t believe I can. Right now — and I would be only too happy to be proved wrong — this seems to be yet another grandiose public construction scheme of the type that is plaguing this area, whether Labour-led (“Eco”-towns) or Conservative (Bancroft and Bridge).

    If they know why they are doing this, please would they tell us? Otherwise, it is time to learn that just because we can build something, it does not mean that we should.

    Planning law must change

    South Warwickshire Environmental Association is a local group which — among other things — is strongly opposing new sand and gravel quarries around the A46 at Broom and Dunnington. Essentially, Mexican company Cemex gained planning approval about 25 years ago for a long neglected quarry at Marsh Farm, on the condition that they reinstated the land after works were complete. Although this reinstatement has never taken place, they are now looking for permission to quarry a short distance away. In all, there are six sand and gravel sites earmarked for these kinds of works in Bidford, Salford Priors and Harvington, among others. If you are not local, you need to understand that these are rural villages of extraordinary charm and beauty.

    I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the local campaign. You can follow the news at the Stratford Herald, or on the association’s website; if you are local, I do urge you to support it. But my concern right now is our antiquated UK planning system which, in my experience, penalises the honest and serves the well-lawyered, well-funded, and the simply brutal.

    First off, planning decisions which have a disproportionate effect at a very local level are made at a distance. Broom’s planning decisions are not made by Broom Parish Council, nor even by Stratford District Council. They are made by the planning committee of Warwickshire County Council. In most cases, it means those making the decisions have neither local knowledge nor connection. True, both the Parish and District Councils can play an advisory role but, as we have seen in this particular instance, things can go wrong with this process, leaving local people no avenue to voice their concerns.

    Second, there is no linkage between fulfilment of previous conditions and the granting of new approval. How can Cemex possibly be allowed to dig a new quarry when they didn’t finish (or even start) the reinstatement of the old land? Simply, because there is nothing to make them. If they were selling a product to the public — for example, a car, or computer software — and failed to comply with previous conditions placed on them, then the Office of Fair Trading, the courts, or even the European Union would impose punitive fines and ban them from further sales. If they were a private citizen who — for example — failed to abide by a Noise Abatement Order, then they would be given an Anti Social Behaviour Order, and if they failed to comply with that, would face a fine or prison. If they were a motorist, they would eventually lose their driving license. No such linkage is applied in planning law.

    Third, all the money is on the side of those who make money. I remember vividly attending a planning appeal at another local authority, where the planning committee had turned down a proposal for a new housing development, and the speculative builders had immediately insisted on appealing. The council brought its own employed solicitor, who looked tired and worn down. The builders brought a smart QC — a silk, in fact — from London. Once the decision was overturned, as it inevitably was, since the council did not have resources to invest in defending it, the QC then demanded that all the costs of the appeal be met by the council. The request was granted. This was (to me) an extraordinary example of a quasi-judicial process thwarting the will of the electorate’s elected members. I subsequently learned that this was in fact quite common. It means that we, the electorate, are funding the means for our wishes to be ignored.

    This is all exacerbated by the kind of quarrying targets that we find in the minerals core strategy. And, of course, we have seen the kind of flouting of local process that happened with the proposed imposition of the Long Marston Eco-Town.

    What should be done?

    At the moment, planning law is both confused and confusing. It is unsurprising that so many appeals by prospective builders and quarriers are upheld, since they are able to invest much more time in delving through the law to find grounds to overturn a decision. Elected councillors are not legal experts, nor should they required to be. Rather, their duty is to exercise their judgment on behalf of the entire community. To balance the needs of economy with the needs of local people to live quiet lives, unhindered and unimpeded by money-making ventures, is a political decision, not a legal one. If the councillors get it wrong, the electors are free to tell them so at the ballot box.

    We do not need further amendments to planning law, but, rather a new simple, definitive system designed to make planning decisions easy to make, and restrictions easy to enforce — with penalties which are greater than the profits a company might make by flouting them. If you go to the government’s Planning Portal, and type the term ‘quarry’ into their search, you find 694 separate results. True, a number of these are news items, but every news item is included because it partially sets a precedent.

    We also need to dramatically alter the balance of risk and reward in favour of the citizen, against materials extractors and speculative builders. In general, for most types of business in Great Britain, the balance is about right. Companies need to be able to bring new products to market and sell them, both to satisfy the consumer and in order to turn a profit which puts money into the economy. But for planning, that balance is heavily skewed. This is particularly an issue because the results of poor planning decisions are with us for decades or even centuries. I’m told that it will take 25 years before the Marsh Farm land would be back to normal if reinstatement started today. Very few businesses in the modern world will survive 25 years, leaving residents with nowhere to turn if reinstatements are not made.

    Finally, we need to reassess what we really want to do with the landscape of Britain. On current strategies, we are perpetually increasing the number of houses, quarries and industrial plants. Do we really need to do so? Perhaps — but we ought to have the debate. Do we really need to continue to do so on green-field sites, while large swathes of urban areas are left to become wasteland? I think not. But it is naturally much more profitable to build on green-field sites than to work with all the pitfalls of building on former factories. Everybody knows this: you will not find a politician, planner or bureaucrat anywhere who wants to build on green-field as a preference to brown-field. But our planning system gives little true support to this view.

    While we know what we should do, our system aids those who wish do to what we wish they wouldn’t. And this must change.

    Winter fuel payments unpaid

    Up to 2600 Stratford on Avon pensioners entitled to Cold Weather Payments ((People can get Cold Weather Payments worth £25 when temperatures are below zero Celsius for seven days when they claim a qualifying benefit, including Pension Credit)) are missing out, according to Lib Dem analysis of government figures. Cold Weather Payments of £25 a week are paid to people on low incomes who received a qualifying benefit, such as Pension Credit. Nationally this goes unclaimed by as many as 1.7 million pensioners. ((Department for Work and Pensions figures for 2007-08 (most recent available) show that between 1.1m and 1.7m pensioners eligible for Pension Credit do not claim it, which also means that they do not receive the Cold Weather Payments.))

    There are three crucial issues here, and the government ought to account for all three.

    First, since official figures suggest that half of all eligible pensioners are not claiming Pension Credit, and hence winter fuel payments, it follows that there is something seriously wrong with the system for claiming. If 10 percent, or even 20 percent, did not claim, then you might be able to put it down to the ordinary experience with this kind of scheme. It is very hard to persuade 90 percent of people to do anything. Generally, if you hit 80 percent, you will probably accept that the remaining 20 percent are hard to reach in some way, or simply don’t want to take up the payment for some reason. But fifty percent? People I have talked to tell me that the system is very complex, far more so than needed. Is this the reason that only half have claimed? Possibly. But see the next point.

    Second, there is a very serious issue that the government has no recent figures, and even the 2007-08 figures are national estimates. In a time when government agencies regularly use ACORN classifications, breaking society down into more than 300 socio-cultural groups, and where the Office for National Statistics is able to provide useful detail down to a few streets or a local area (Output Areas and Super Output Areas), it is astonishing that the government only has the most general figures for such a significant problem. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they have no real understanding of why half the eligible people are not claiming.

    Third, in this time of extreme temperatures, lives are at risk as people on already meagre incomes are forced to stump up the extra cash for heating. A lot of people I have talked to in the constituency have experienced winter heating problems — lack of fuel oil, electricity failures in the freezing conditions, and more. People on low pensions in such circumstances have to spend even more money for temporary solutions. It is the government’s moral duty to do all it can to ensure that winter fuel payments are made — even to the point of offering them retrospectively for older people who register now or in the next few weeks.

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